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Read all about it: NS Books of the Year 2012

The New Statesman’s friends and contributors choose their favourite books of 2012.

Each year, in November, we ask regular contributors to the Critics pages of the New Statesman, together with other friends of the magazine, to write about their favourite books of year. There are no constraints on what kinds of books they are able to choose, so the results are often intriguing. Consensus is largely elusive, although this year a couple of titles were chosen by several of the participants - What Money Can't Buy, the political philosopher Michael Sandel's assault on the logic of market fundamentalism (the Labour leader Ed Miliband was among those to nominate Sandel) and John Jeremiah Sullivan's essay collection Pulphead.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

 

Rowan Williams

Two books this year have struck me as overwhelming in different ways. Marian Partington’s If You Sit Very Still (Vala, £15.99) is an account of coming to terms with the most appalling sort of bereavement imaginable: Marian’s sister, Lucy, was abused and murdered by Fred and Rosemary West. Her spiritual journey to a place where it is possible to contemplate all this without hatred or despair is as moving as anything I’ve ever read on such a subject.

Alan Garner’s novel Boneland (Fourth Estate, £16.99), an adult continuation of his children’s fantasies of the 1960s, is a distillation of all that makes Garner such a unique genius – written with intense, spare vividness, terrifying psychological subtlety and the kind of visual imagination that makes everything, from stones to stars, strange.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo:Nationaal Historisch Museum via Creative Commons)

A S Byatt

Jenny Uglow’s The Pinecone (Faber & Faber, £20) is about the language of carving, objects containing ideas. It is the story of Sarah Losh, a north country heiress in the early 19th century, forceful, learned, independent, who built a church full of fascinating images. The tale is mysterious because Uglow worked with almost no manuscript remains and scrupulously invented nothing. She has turned this central silence into a kind of force by describing stones, glass, things constructed, so precisely that they become not exactly alive but strangely present on the page. Their world – business, weather, politics, poets, marriages, deaths – becomes a revenant around them. I don’t know another book that feels quite like this one.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

(Photo: Getty Images)

Ed Miliband

The Fear Index by Robert Harris (Arrow, £7.99) is a great story set in the world of finance about markets being manipulated, how technology has changed financial markets and greed. Entirely fictional, of course. In What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets (Allen Lane, £20), Michael Sandel makes a powerful argument that applying market values where they don’t belong – whether in government, education, art or personal relations – can corrode our ideas of right and wrong. The book argues that when we don’t observe the boundaries of markets, we corrupt the values we share. I was proud to have Michael at the Labour party conference this year, encouraging delegates to argue and debate. This is a book that can persuade people that the rules of the economy don’t just reflect our values, they help to determine them – and that is a powerful argument for change.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

 

Ali Smith

I think Peter Hobbs is one of the most fearless, most original and most graceful novelists at work right now. His second novel, In the Orchard, the Swallows (Faber & Faber, £10.99), came out quietly at the beginning of the year. A story of impossible and dangerous love across class, politics and hierarchy in Pakistan and about the risks, the importance and the unexpected hospitality in the act of storytelling, it’s even more proof, if we needed it after his striking debut, The Short Day Dying, of his ability to do anything he likes with voice and to treat form with the elegance and resonance that delivers both these novels as contemporary classics.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Melvyn Bragg

It’s been a very strong year for fiction with some surprising omissions from the Man Book­er Prize longlist. It’s tempting to discuss at least three of the novels I’ve enjoyed but I’d rather concentrate on one – Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99). Barker has steadily built up (beginning with Regeneration) what has a fair chance of turning out to be a great and lasting series of fiction based on the First World War. Toby’s Room can be seen as a companion piece to an earlier novel of hers, Life Class. We’re in the world of art students at the Slade and then the furnace of the trenches. The plot unfurls to a devastating conclusion. It is a very fine piece of work.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Margaret Drabble

Two memoirs of our time: Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton (Jonathan Cape, £25), an indispensable text that needs no description, and Martin Bernal’s Geography of a Life (Xlibris, £17.99), which rambles through an extraordinary academic career. Chronologically and stylistically chaotic – he ascribes the polished prose of his controversial book Black Athena to the talents of his then editor – it is a mixture of unworldly self-revelation and intellectual perseverance, with a cast that includes his father, J D Bernal, his formidable mother, Margaret Gardiner, Elias Canetti, W H Auden, Jessica Mitford, Noam Chomsky, Eric Hobsbawm, Edward Said and many more. I found it gripping, as I have found his work on Eurocentrism, anti-Semitism and the roots of Greek civilisation. It’s the exemplary tale of a cradle leftist, fighting to the end. Known to students and colleagues as “a pasty-faced Maoist” and “that devil Bernal”, he is at once self-deprecating and utterly confident. Not unlike Salman Rushdie.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Ed Balls

One of my earliest childhood memories is reading a sensory storybook with my mum. You could scratch it like a chicken in the yard and smell the lavender as you turned the page. It worked every time! Nigel Slater writes adult versions of those childhood books. And he does it not with texture, potions or even many pictures but simply with words. As you read his descriptive prose – “mild, elusive, savoury yet sweet” – you can just smell that aroma of bay and garlic as the pork shoulder cooks in milk, Italian style. It works every time. This year, I have loved reading Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries II (Fourth Estate, £30). The recipes work. The seasonal chapters are fun. And the writing is just fabulous and so, so aromatic.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: MidnightLounge via Creative Commons)

Tracey Thorn

I loved Zadie Smith’s NW (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) but it is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99) – a brilliant psychological thriller of unreliable narrators and shifting sympathies – that has been my book of the year. A married couple, Nick and Amy, take turns to tell their story through diary entries and first-person narrative, after she has mysteriously disappeared. One of them is an idiot, the other a psychopath; it’s up to you to guess which. When it becomes clear, you then have to decide who you’re rooting for and it’s not as clear cut as you might imagine. Among the page-turning plot twists, Flynn makes room for outbursts of feminist invective that will have you punching the air in solidarity, then remembering whose side you’re on. Exhilarating and creepy, it has sent me rushing off to her other novels.
 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Colm Tóibín

The value of the new edition of The Book of Kells (Thames & Hudson, £60) is not merely in the quality of the illustrations but the lu­cidity of the explanatory texts by Bernard Meehan. Although my ancestors came to Ireland some centuries after its creation and thus I cannot claim credit for it, I bask in pride that we did not destroy this masterpiece of European art. Another key book that helps to explain Ireland, this time in all its dark tragedy, is Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, edited by John Crowley, William J Smyth and Mike Murphy (Cork University Press, £55) – an enormous tome that sets out the scope of contemporary scholarship on the famine. Amos Oz’s How to Cure a Fanatic (Vintage, £3.99) is a very short book compared to the other two but is invaluable because of his wisdom and the passionate nature of his engagement and his sane effort to find the outlines of an agreement in the Middle East.
 

 

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Jesse Norman

My book of 2012 is The New Few: or Very British Oligarchy (Simon & Schuster, £18.99) by Ferdinand Mount. It’s short, ironic, beautifully written and infused with a slow-burning anger at how the fat cats have taken over – in finance, in business, in officialdom, in politics. Starting with the parable of William F Aldinger (who was paid £35m over three years by HSBC for selling them a business on which it lost £40bn), the book elegantly dissects the failures of shareholder capitalism, oligarchy and the centralisation and resistance to change of the Whitehall (and euro-) blob. The result is a formidable and distinctively conservative critique of crony capitalism and its political and economic growth factors. Much to agree with, yet more to admire.
 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

 

Richard J Evans

My book of the year is Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Allen Lane, £30). It’s an enormously engrossing study of the personalities and politics of the many different European states that plunged into the disastrous conflict of the First World War. Clark makes the decision-makers come alive, exposes their personal foibles and ambitions and puts them in the context of an increasingly polarised European states system. He has used almost every national archive in Europe and brings some startling new facts to light. And he focuses far more than most historians do on the violent and unstable political maelstrom of the Balkans, where the fuse that led to August 1914 was lit. Clark has got in early for the centenary commemorations and delivered an original and startlingly revisionist work that all the other studies of the war’s origins that will doubtless appear over the next two years will have to take into account.
 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

 

Alain de Botton

This year, I was touched by Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (Faber & Faber, £12.99). As a non-Christian, indeed a committed atheist, I was worried about how I’d feel about this book but it pulled off a rare feat: making Christianity seem appealing to those who have no interest in ever being Christians. A number of Christian writers have over the past decade tried to write books defending their faith against the onslaughts of the new atheists – but they’ve generally failed. Spufford understands that the trick isn’t to try to convince the reader that Christianity is true but rather to show why it’s interesting, wise and sometimes consoling.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Syniq via Creative Commons)

Laura Kuenssberg

To anyone who is fond of a good snooze, the title alone of Sue Townsend’s The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year (Penguin, £7.99) is ample reason to pick it up. Yet the reward is far more than the pleasure of pondering months cocooned in your duvet. The decision of the improbably named Eva Beaver, a middle-aged librarian from Leicester, to take to her bed for many months gives the creator of suburban teen anti-hero Adrian Mole plenty of scope for gags. Yet it stands out not for those (or the tips on how to avoid bed sores) but for the way it explores the entirely terrifying prospect that if you stop and comprehensively examine your life, you might not like what you see. Unexpectedly memorable and enticingly tough.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Douglas Alexander

Old friends know you well enough to know the books you’ll love. In September, while at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, David Miliband urged me to read Our Divided Political Heart by the Washington Post columnist E J Dionne Jr (Bloomsbury, £19.99). It was good advice. Dionne argues that the US was forged by both individualistic and communitarian impulses and that today’s polarised disagreements about the country’s future reflect fundamentally different and contradictory accounts of America’s history. Its lucid and insightful plea for a new and more balanced public discourse is one that politicians on both sides of the Atlantic would do well to consider. With its broad historical sweep, Dionne’s book reminds us that today’s politics reflects yesterday’s history. Yet in contemporary America, historical accuracy has too often been the victim of partisan passion. If the public realm is filled simply with shouting, the public will simply retreat further from it. Instead, we need politicians brave enough to level with the public, to be honest about the past and candid about the future. What Our Divided Political Heart expresses eloquently is the simple truth that politics as usual just doesn’t cut it.
 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Jenny Diski

Anakana Schofield’s Malarky (Biblioasis, $19.95) and Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home (Faber & Faber, £7.99) are quite different novels, each with their own notable style and imaginative power. Good new novels are rare and here are two of them. Diana Souhami’s Murder at Wrotham Hill (Quercus, £18.99) is a brilliantly formulated and well-written account of a tawdry murder that shines a bright light on postwar austerity England.
 

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jon Snow

We continue to live through more than challenging economic times – times in which we begin to wonder if anyone in the financial world actually understands anything at all. Hence my resort to the exceptional Lords of Finance: 1929, the Great Depression and the Bankers Who Broke the World (Windmill Books, £9.99). At times, Liaquat Ahamed’s account of the great crash of the 1920s reads like fiction. More than anything else, he reminds us eloquently how, particularly in banking, history repeats itself. No one, its seems, ever learns.

The death of Eric Hobsbawm provoked me to pick up his wonderful autobiography, Interesting Times: a Twentieth-Century Life (Abacus, £12.99). It is an unexpectedly eclectic, beautifully observed journey through a complex century in which Hobsbawm renders the idea of a great intellectual remaining a communist for 50 years to have been nothing less than normal. Reading this touchingly human book, I learned so much about the history that simply dried up when we were at school.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Julie Myerson

By far the most intense experience I had as a reader this year was with David Vann’s Dirt (Heinemann, £12.99). Words and ideas seem almost dangerous in his hands and yet his work is full of heart. For me that’s probably the definition of perfection in fiction. Emily Perkins also did something brilliantly and differently boundary-smashing with The Forrests (Bloomsbury, £12.99), an ambitious and unerringly feminine family saga flooded with light and life. Her description of how it feels to get a small child dressed after swimming is still with me months after reading.
 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Simon Heffer

Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Allen Lane, £30) is the best book I have read this year, or indeed for several years. His depth of scholarship, his power of analysis and his ease of style make me pity other lesser historians who will be traversing this ground before the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in 2014. In the same league, and almost as good, is Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: the Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 (Allen Lane, £25), which tells how Hitler’s evil was supplanted by Stalin’s, and details the murder, theft and destruction advanced in the name of Stalin’s ideology. All those minded to excuse the late Eric Hobsbawm’s offensive views on this question should read this book. I also learned much from Reflections: the Piano Music of Maurice Ravel by Paul Roberts (Amadeus Press, £22.95), which illuminates some of the most important work of this great composer.
 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

James Wood

Karl Ove Knausgård’s extraordinary book, A Death in the Family (Harvill Secker, £17.99), the first volume of My Struggle, didn’t get the attention in English translation that it deserved. Not quite a memoir but not really a novel either, this account of the Norwegian writer’s struggle to become a writer, and his struggle to remain one while dealing with the blows and joys of life (marriage, children, the death of a distant and alcoholic father) is something more like a long dramatic essay, full of description, philosophy, self-examination and pitiless honesty. It creates room for both the lyrical and the prosaic, the shocking and the banal; there are reflections on experiences as diverse as playing in a rock band, looking at Constable’s drawings, reading Adorno, the passage of time, the disappearance of death from our everyday experience and the grim business of clearing up a deceased father’s empty vodka bottles.

Two novels also stood out: Zadie Smith’s NW (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) may have an interrupted and sometimes peripatetic form but there are passages of writing about London (long ones: sections and scenes) more vital and achieved than anything else she has written. Like Knausgård, she is a risk-taker, restless with old forms. Patrick McGuinness’s The Last Hundred Days (Seren, £8.99) was published last year but I only got to it this year. It’s a brilliant first novel set in 1989, in the writhing demise of communist Bucharest – dark, immaculately written, bitterly lucid and very gripping.
 

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Joan Bakewell

Seasons in the Sun: the Battle for Britain 1974-1979 by Dominic Sandbrook (Allen Lane, £30) is an enthralling account of turbulent times with detail that is both surprising (the degree of Harold Wilson’s paranoia) and beguiling (punk’s greatest legacy was today’s close-cropped hair). This will stand as the definitive history for a good long time.

Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman (Penguin, £8.99) is a jaw-dropping read charting the way a global media giant infiltrated and influenced our political culture and debased our values. And the story probably isn’t over yet.

In From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: What You Really Need to Know About the Internet (Quercus, £10.99), John Naughton’s easy journalistic style gives me all the information I sort of knew and facts I hadn’t joined up. He also looks ahead to what might come and offers a timely warning.
 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Mark Damazer

Michael Sandel’s jargon-free and witty What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets (Allen Lane, £20) corrals examples of how we have allowed the language of difficult moral choice to be crowded out by the apparently neutral mechanism of money. Sandel recognises that markets are often the best way to allocate resources but points to areas where the creation of new markets has had unpalatable consequences for fairness and solidarity. His case studies touch on queuing, health care, insurance, advertising and much else. They are often laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes disturbing and always thought-provoking.

I discovered The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth (Granta Books, £9.99) 80 years after its publication. It is a fantastic evocation of the Austro-Hungarian empire heading towards defeat and collapse. It spans three generations of Austrian male officialdom, and both describes and penetrates the traditions and mores of a society in gentle decay. This is a beautiful novel that does not rely on fireworks to achieve its impact. Roth’s portrayal of the buttoned-up Trotta family is unflinching but he leaves you with sympathy for many of his characters – including Emperor Franz Joseph himself.
 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

John Gray

Ray Monk’s Inside the Centre: the Life of J Robert Oppenheimer (Jonathan Cape, £30), does what nothing so far written on the enigmatic physicist has attempted: integrating into a seamless whole a profound inquiry into the formative influences on Oppenheimer’s character, a definitive account of his complex role in the development of the atomic bomb and a penetrating analysis of the philosophical implications of the new physics. It is not just a great biography but a powerful work of art.

Will Self’s Umbrella (Bloomsbury, £18.99) has been hailed as a brilliant exercise in high modernism, and so it is; but it is also a superbly realised exemplar of an older and rarer genre – a metaphysical novel in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, exploring the evanescence of consciousness in a material world that can never be finally understood.
 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

David Willetts

I was fortunate to chair the panel for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction this year. The worthy winner was Into the Silence: the Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest (Vintage, £12.99) by the Canadian Wade Davis, which sheds new light on history that we thought we knew. It is meticulously detailed and very readable. During the judging process I was struck by how many excellent English-language writers there are at the moment.

Another book that left a deep impression was Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: a History of Violence and Humanity (Penguin, £12.99). It is an optimistic take on the human condition that shows we are less likely to die at someone else’s hands than ever before.

Donavan Hohn’s Moby-Duck (Union Books, £8.99) had the best title. It is the story of 29,000 rubber ducks that fell off a container ship while making its way from China to the US. By the end, this seemingly narrow story had encompassed geography, science and business.
 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Ruth Padel

There is no one like the poet Selima Hill. She gets to the heart of a feeling or a thought or a relationship via a symbolism so near the bone, but also so confidingly warm, that you only realise its achievement on second reading. She celebrates the all-too-humanly conflicted unconscious with surrealism and a uniquely lucid, but also lurid, inventiveness. Her tough, chaotic, truthful voice juxtaposes nanoseconds of intimate confidentiality (“having sex with someone when you’re sleepy/is hard enough, as we all know”) with mad zoology (“a tadpole I called Muriel/would look me in the eye as if to say/Give me back my jellied palisades”). Her new book, People Who Like Meatballs (Bloodaxe, £9.95), contains two sequences, one addressed by a woman to a man, one by a woman to her mother, from infant dependence to old age: brilliant, uncompromising, beguiling, painful and very funny. A triumph.
 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: PalFest via Creative Commons)

Pankaj Mishra

Original novels by Tabish Khair – How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position (Fourth Estate, £6.99) – and Jerry Pinto – Em and the Big Hoom (Aleph Book Company, £24.99) – revitalised Indian writing in English, a genre that has been subjected lately to premature obituaries. In The World of Persian Literary Humanism (Harvard University Press, £25.95), Hamid Dabashi revealed, with his usual brilliance, yet more aspects of a sophisticated culture to an Anglophone readership. Marwan Bishara’s The Invisible Arab (Nation Books, £17.99) is one of the most insightful accounts of the ongoing transformations in west Asia.
 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

Jane Shilling

Seldom can a book have been more recklessly titled than Ian Sansom’s remarkable tour de force, Paper: an Elegy (Fourth Estate, £14.99). “Imagine for a moment,” Sansom urges his readers, “that paper were to disappear. Would anything be lost? Everything would be lost.” In fact, he comes not to bury paper but to praise it, for its many enchantments: its seductive versatility, its fragile power, its pernicious spread, since its origins in China 2,000 years ago, “like alarm and disease and dreams and despondency”. Sansom’s book (the product, he notes, of “one entire tree”) is vastly knowledgeable, beautifully written, very funny and, as you might expect, a remarkably handsome object in its own right. Probably best not to read it on a Kindle.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Norman Lamont

My favourite reading this year was Christopher Tyerman’s history of the Crusades, God’s War (Penguin, £16.99). The Crusades were an astounding phenomenon that lasted centuries and had a profound impact on medieval European society. For much of the European nobility, the world was as international as it is today. The behaviour of the crusaders was at times shocking, yet piety and devotion were also present. Tyerman stitches together a masterly tapestry of crowns, empires, massacres, chivalry and papal realpolitik. These events cast their shadow today and one is left wondering how George W Bush ever dared utter the word “crusade” in his response to 9/11.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: WikiCommons)

Simon Blackburn

In anticipation of a trip to Ecuador, I picked up Edward Whymper’s Travels Amongst the Great Andes of The Equator (BiblioBazaaar, £22.99), first published in 1892. Part ripping yarn, part scientific investigation, part mountaineering epic, part showcase for Whymper’s own illustrations, it is a reminder of just how versatile, curious and many-sided the great mountaineer was. Few modern travellers could imagine facing the difficulties and dangers that he took in his stride. The final illustration, of a “selection” of his bedfellows in Guayaquil, shows 50 horrendous bugs carefully catalogued by their zoological families but with the disarming comment that the larger species have been omitted because of their size. Awesome.
 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Michael Holroyd

Michael Morpurgo: War Child to War Horse (Fourth Estate, £18.99) is an extraordinary hybrid of a book, with seven brilliant chapters written by Maggie Fergusson, one of our most subtly gifted biographers, and responses from her celebrated subject. Her chapters are skilful orchestrations of truth and tact that offer the Morpurgo family an opportunity of finding relief from their troubles. His replies would have been all the stronger on a CD, allowing us to hear the voice that has entranced innumerable children. Jérôme Ferrari’s Where I Left My Soul (MacLehose Press, £12) is a powerful short novel, taking us from Buchenwald and Vietnam to Algeria, and leading to the conclusion that those who suffer most go on to cause most suffering. Anyone who still believes that we should be sending people to American-style jails should read the description of the violent Texas prison in Gary Mulgrew’s Gang of One (Hodder, £8.99).
 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

John Banville

David Thomson is the greatest living writer on the movies – or “movie”, as he prefers – and The Big Screen (Allen Lane, £25) is surely his magnum opus. He starts way back, with the stop-motion photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, and ends with the so-called social network – “Facebook already takes our earnest admissions about ourselves and trades them for advertising” – and other latter-day horrors of the large and small screen. A joyful, passionate and worried book. Other ways of looking are proposed in Caspar David Friedrich, by Johannes Grave (Prestel, £80), a magnificent and uniquely detailed overview of the paintings of this dark and daring master of German Romanticism.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Laurie Penny

Debt: the First 5,000 Years by David Graeber (Melville House, £14.99), is the most important theory book I’ve read this year – an essential take on the current crisis by an anarchist anthropologist who combines credentials with readability. Kate Zambreno’s Heroines (MIT Press, £12.95) is a lush, lyrical feminist memoir structured around a rereading of the lives of the wives of the great modernist novelists who were locked up in institutions when they tried to write themselves. And by far the most fun I’ve had with fiction this year was Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker (Windmill Books, £7.99). Gorgeous prose and a rollicking steampunk spy thriller. Brilliant.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

(Photo: Getty Images)

Geoff Dyer

The claims made by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, £14.99) at first seem thoroughly implausible: that America’s criminal justice system, especially the launch of the “war on drugs”, has functioned to recreate racial segregation of a kind that the civil rights movement was thought to have brought to an end. And this is not just an accidental side effect (of poverty, rising crime rates, lack of education and so on) but a deliberate policy and goal. One is dragged to the middle of the book kicking and screaming – in the time of Obama, this can’t be! – but by the end, the weight of evidence, the extraordinary statistics (a prison population that has leapt from 350,000 to 2.3 million in 25 years) and the subtle power of Alexander’s analysis of “mass incarceration as a racial caste system, not as a system of crime control” prove overwhelming.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Amanda Craig

A novel which stood out for me is Susie Boyt’s The Small Hours (Virago, £14.99), about an eccentric woman who tries to overcome the misery of her own childhood by founding an idyllic nursery for little girls. Like Edward St Aubyn and Henry James, Boyt has an acute sense of how even the rich can live in despair, and the result is an exquisitely written black comedy about innocence, evil and financial ruin. For children of eight and over, Kate Saunders’s The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop (Marion Lloyd Books, £6.99), about a poor family who inherit a shabby shop a stone’s throw away from Ed Miliband’s home, is a must-have. With haunted wallpaper, a talking cat and magical chocolate, it is pure joy for any imaginative child with a sense of humour.

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Leo Robson

Nadine Gordimer’s No Time Like the Present (Bloomsbury, £18.99), which uses a mixed-race marriage to explore South Africa under Mbeki and Zuma, is a masterpiece. Philip Hensher apparently cannot stop writing novels, nor, when they are as rich as Scenes from Early Life (Fourth Estate, £18.99), would we want him to; he is becoming the most dependable of English novelists. Michael Anesko’s Monopolising the Master: Henry James and the Politics of Modern Literary Scholarship (Stanford University Press, £30.50), about Leon Edel’s manipulation of Henry James’s descendants, is a gripping and groundbreaking book. The essay collection continues to thrive; of the many I came across this year, the best were Jonathan Meades’s Museum Without Walls (Unbound, £18.99), Dwight Macdonald’s Mass­cult and Midcult (New York Review Books Classics, £9.99), Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours (McSweeney’s, £9.99) and John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead (Vintage, £9.99).

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Sketch: Dan Murrell for the New Statesman)

Tim Soutphommasane

In The Passage of Power (Bodley Head, £35), the fourth volume of his epic study of Lyndon B Johnson, Robert Caro sets the gold standard for modern political biography. And with each instalment of this biography, the complex legend of Johnson grows. Caro, now in the twilight of his life, has said that the final volume of “the years of Lyndon Johnson” is not to be completed by anyone other than himself. We can only hope that we are fortunate enough to see this monumental work reach its long-awaited conclusion. In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Allen Lane, £20), the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains the limits of rationality with flair. The prestige of universal reason dates back to Plato but Haidt sides with David Hume’s contention that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”. Intuitions and the unconscious ultimately sway us more than reasons – at least that’s the thesis. When it comes to arguments, you have to think about being able to tell a compelling story and pushing the right buttons. It seems obvious enough; yet do we not often fall victim to the hubris of reason?

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Olivia Laing

Two magnificent books this year: Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan (Vintage, £9.99) and Fire in the Belly by Cynthia Carr (Bloomsbury, £25). Both illuminate the divisions in American culture; both are elegant, engaged and full of feeling. Pulphead is a collection of essays drawn from Sullivan’s adventures in America’s heartland. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve pressed it on while raving about the portraits of Axl Rose and Michael Jackson, or the one about the blues, or the cave art hidden beneath Carolina. Strictly speaking, Fire in the Belly is a biography of the 1980s New York artist and Aids activist David Wojnarowicz. Inspiring, angry and meticulously researched, it also serves as a brutally revealing account of the Aids years, among the more shameful periods in American history. Biography of the year, without a shadow of a doubt.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Sam Bradley for the New Statesman)

Ed Smith

Two books about the state we’re in: Antifragile: How To Live in a World We Don’t Understand (Allen Lane, £25) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Ferdinand Mount’s The New Few: or a Very British Oligarchy (Simon & Schuster, £18.99). Mount’s elegant essay explains how capitalism has been corrupted and corroded, leaving us with disempowered shareholders, confused savers and vastly overpaid executives. Where Mount’s book is controlled, Taleb’s insatiable polymathic curiosity knows no bounds. He is as trenchant and persuasive about diet as he is about debt. Taleb is always provocative (“If you see fraud and do not say fraud you are a fraud”), but he is also wise and emboldening. You finish the book feeling braver and uplifted.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

Colin MacCabe

Susan Sontag’s second volume of diaries, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99), covering the years 1964-1980, was a continuous delight. It provides a wonderful record of those years both politically and intellectually, including a trip to North Vietnam in 1968. But it is also laced with personal reflections that offer a portrait of one of the most remarkable intellects of our time.

 

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Adam Mars-Jones

I admired a first novel that didn’t seem to get the attention it deserved, I J Kay’s Mountains of the Moon (Jonathan Cape, £16.99). The book has a strong plot but it’s kept in the background, almost suppressed, so as to fix attention on the narrator-heroine, an extraordinary creation, feral and tender. The writing is highly coloured though carefully controlled, full of pain with a strange backwash of joy. Christopher Reid is the least assertive poet of his generation, but unassertiveness can be a persona like any other and his voice is piercing and memorable. Nonsense (Faber and Faber, £12.99) is a strong collection, continuing his explorations of narrative verse. It’s highly entertaining but very far from throwaway.

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

David Marquand

Two books have stood out for me this year. I was bowled over by Hilary Mantel’s masterpiece Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate, £20). Professional historians often look down their noses at historical novels, and I dare say university teachers of literature do so too. But the latest addition to the Mantel canon is superb history as well as magnificent literature. It has pace, excitement, astonishing insight into human psychology (much of it extremely nasty) and a wonderful ability to re-create a savage world, halfway between magic and modernity, in which heretics were burned at the stake and traitors were hanged, drawn and quartered. A must. The second is Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (Routledge, £12.99) – a long overdue part of my education but better late than never. I disagree with almost everything it says, but I have to admit that it is a work of genius, crackling with intellectual passion and barely suppressed rage. Nothing produced by liberals or social democrats in the past 60 years equals it for forensic power. After reading it, it is not difficult to see why the Hayekian New Right found it so easy to step into the breach left by the collapse of postwar Keynesian social democracy in the terrible decade of the 1970s – or why the crisis of our time has not yet produced a comparable counterattack.

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Toby Litt

One book amazed me: Sharon Olds’s Stag’s Leap (Jonathan Cape, £10). It would be easy to be cynical and say that this is exactly the book one might have expected Olds to write, given the circumstances (Olds’s husband left her). Yes, this is exactly the great, heartfelt, monumental book – so much better than anything a cynic might write. There’s something of Emily Dickinson’s scour in this summation: “I was not driven/Against the grate of a mortal life, but/just the slowly shut gate/of preference.” The folk poem “Left-Wife Goose” is unlikely to be left out of any future anthology of 21st-century poetry. It even smuggles a Cocteau Twins lyric into its sorrowful clapping song. “Inter, Mitzy, Titzy, Tool,/Ira, Dura, Dominee,/Ocker, Poker, Dominocker,/Out Goes Me.” Stag’s Leap reads as the obverse of Robert Lowell’s auto­biographical wankathons. This is the other, better side.

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

(Photo: Getty Images)

Adam Gopnik

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: a History of Violence and Humanity (Allen Lane, £12.99) got some ferociously nasty reviews when it came out. It was easy to see why: its argument that violence has diminished, and pretty drastically, over human history in general and over the past few centuries in particular – mostly owing to the spread of Enlightenment doctrines of kindness, tolerance and fair procedure – seemed counterintuitive, even fatuous, in the century after the Gulag and Treblinka. Though already a Pinker fan, I read it with some suspicion, but my doubts were soon dissuaded by the sheer weight, detail and quiet eloquence of the data Pinker marshals in support of his argument. Most of the time, when we read even a very good book with a theory we don’t like we come away unconvinced; only time, friends and many rereadings move us off home base in its direction. With this one, the rarest thing that can happen with a book happened: I began sceptical, sat up halfway through to consider and ended persuaded.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Editorial Intelligence via Creative Commons)

Sarah Churchwell

Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (W W Norton, £20) is the latest in a growing list of books that reconstruct the making of novels – the literary critic’s version of a DVD film commentary, offering behind-the-scenes contexts and insights into a masterpiece, in this case James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Gorra’s book contributes to another welcome trend as well, the turn away from turgid, jargon-ridden literary criticism and back towards the belle-lettristic essay. Blending biography, history, travelogue and review essay, Gorra opens up James’s classic novel with elegance, nuance and grace, and reminds us what the master still has to teach us about art, free will, choice and America along the way.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Douglas Hurd

After the death of Edward VII in 1910, people began to ask how far he was responsible for the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale. In her excellent biography, Bertie (Chatto & Windus, £30), Jane Ridley puts this argument to bed. She concedes that Edward, unlike his father, did not amend official documents but in 1903 he had driven through the streets of Paris and proclaimed that this was a city where he felt at home. In 1914, while the diplomats played their ambiguous games, the French people remembered the king who had been their friend. The king had spoken and for them this was the voice of Britain.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

Adam Thirlwell

Of new things, I think I most loved Chris Ware’s Building Stories (Jonathan Cape, £30), where the sadness of the narrative is fractured by the fizziness of its construction: a gorgeous box full of miniature overlapping stories. The best prose was in Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue (Fourth Estate, £18.99), while I’ve found myself rereading Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home (Granta Books, £12.99), which comes out early next year, trying to work out this short novel’s intricate structure of gaps and holes. As for old things, the new complete version of Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary (Yale University Press, £15.99) is one jubilant, gruesome, unsparing self-portrait; while another is contained in The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard (Library of America, $35), whose prose is as deadpan good as Warhol’s or Gertrude Stein’s, but funnier than both of them.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Talitha Stevenson

The books that most expanded my soul this year are proof of the power of non-fiction to defamiliarise the ordinary and familiarise the strange. John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection of essays, Pulphead (Vintage, £9.99), is a Cadillac-on-the-freeway tour of Americana. In my favourite essay, about a Christian rock festival, he combines irreverence with reverence as only the holiest fools know how. Gerald Hughes’s Ted and I: a Brother’s Memoir (The Robson Press, £16.99) is the genesis story of Ted Hughes’s gods. Misty accounts of Ted as a child, keeping little fish in jars, marvelling at Gerald’s mature rat-shooting skills, show the vulnerability of a man whose excess of talent and beauty ensured that one day his failings would be deemed a universal threat.

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

John Sutherland

The best thriller of the year was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99). The plot is as sexually edgy as a potato embedded with razor blades. At the risk of heading Private Eye’s logroller list of shame, the most impressive scholarly work I have read this year is my former colleague Rosemary Ashton’s Victorian Bloomsbury (Yale University Press, £25). There is a library’s worth of research compressed between its covers. The finest memorial volume was Peter Campbell’s Artwork (Profile Books, £30), a rich collection of his watercolours with feeling introductions about their late colleague by Bill Manhire and Jeremy Harding. I miss him too.

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Andrew Adonis

My book of the year is Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland? by Pasi Sahlberg (Teachers College Press, $34.95), an inspirational story of social progress that masquerades as a technical account of the Finnish education system. It includes data from Finnish social surveys showing that Finnish men view teaching as the most desirable profession for a spouse, ahead of nursing, medicine or architecture; and that among Finnish women only medical doctors and vets rate higher than teachers in what Sahlberg calls the “Finnish mating markets”. “This clearly documents both the high professional and social status teachers have attained in Finland,” he adds with dry wit. If only the same were true of England. We could make it so, with a collective will.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Christopher Ricks

David Ferry is a transcendent American poet who has not had his due over here, where, until now, only his eloquent translation of Gilgamesh has been published. At last, one of the UK’s best publishers of poetry does right by him, with On This Side of the River: Selected Poems (Waywiser, £12.99), a handsome representation of his life’s work at its best, up to this very year. Ferry’s cadences are firm and touchingly tentative, his phrasing individually turned, his poignancies unsentimental. The true voice, or rather the true voices, of feeling, as clear as a bell, from a great poet, now of a great age. Alive with stoicism’s wit, “Turning Eighty-Eight, a Birthday Poem”, a recent one-line poem, is no flat line: “It is a breath-taking, near-death, experience.”

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Jonathan Derbyshire

John Jeremiah Sullivan pulls off quite a trick in the essays collected in Pulphead (Vintage, £9.99) – he mines the residual weirdnesses and oddities of the “other side of America” without ever condescending to his subjects. His piece on Michael Jackson, in particular, is a miracle of imaginative sympathy, as well as being the best bit of writing about music I’ve read in years. Sullivan’s big subject is the search for self-definition. It’s Ben Lerner’s, too. In his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (Granta Books, £14.99), Lerner makes a kind of refined comedy out of his grad student narrator’s gnawing sense of his own inauthenticity.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

(Photo: WikiCommons)

John Burnside

David Gilbert may have spent the past 30 years in jail for his part in an attempted appropriation of funds by the Black Liberation Army in 1981 but his analytical powers, compassion and imagination are as keen as ever. In Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond (PM Press, £15.99), he offers more of the urgent yet cool-headed political analysis that made his No Surrender (2004) vital reading for a new generation of activists. This time, it is more personal on the surface but don’t mistake this for yet another memoir of the 1960s – it’s a masterclass in political analysis and activism from someone whose integrity and lack of ego have allowed him to learn crucial lessons from the failures of his time in the Weather Underground and from the continuing struggles for justice and dignity in the various prisons where he has been incarcerated for far too long.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

One of the most informative and also entertaining books I have read this year is Mr Churchill’s Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer by Peter Clarke (Bloomsbury, £20), an account of Churchill’s career as journalist and author. It was a remarkably highly paid career: he made the modern equivalent of £10,000 a month as a 25-year-old correspondent in the Boer war, then, 30 years later, the same for frankly lightweight pieces in the News of the World and he dealt with his publishers in a way that was sometimes barely honest.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Craig Raine

Julia Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic (Penguin, £12.99) is about Japanese women who came to America to marry Japanese husbands in 1900 – perhaps the first mail-order brides. This very short, entirely original novel, narrated in the first-person plural, an incantatory “we”, adumbrates lives, traumas, years with poetic brevity. A paragraph of only three or four sentences, for example, will tell you about a mother who has left an illegitimate daughter behind – the daughter she will dream about for the rest of her life, at always the same age, mesmerised by a dead bee in a puddle of dirty water. Here, a sentence, a swift, exact brushstroke, can capture pain with the paint still wet. A masterpiece.

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Peter Wilby

Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets (Allen Lane, £20) is the most effective demolition of the neoliberal project I have read, all the better because it prefers cool analysis to passionate denunciation. Dial M for Murdoch by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman (Allen Lane, £8.99) is a lucid, riveting and sometimes frightening account of the hacking scandal. I enjoyed reading Ed Smith’s Luck (Bloomsbury, £16.99) far more than I enjoyed watching him bat. The Life and Death of Secondary Education for All by Richard Pring (Routledge, £24.99) is a salutary reminder from Oxford’s professor of education of how much damage successive education ministers have done.

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Benjamin Kunkel

Part of the nature of contemporary life seems to be to take for granted and project into the future conditions that are in fact rare and fleeting. Two recent books struck me as especially welcome corrections to this habit. Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (Verso, £16.99) examines the simultaneous rise of fossil-fuelled capitalism and mass democracy, and asks very intelligent questions about the fate of democracy when oil production declines. And From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia (Allen Lane, £20) by Pankaj Mishra, is a reminder, by way of an intellectual history of Asian responses to imperialism, that European intellectual and political predominance was a freak of history unlikely to be sustained. Whatever else may distinguish this century from the last one, the geographies of thought, politics, and energy are all being remade.

 

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Jason Cowley

No book has absorbed me more this year than D T Max’s biography of the American writer David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story (Granta Books, £20). Wallace was a novelist, essayist and teenage tennis champion. He was also clinically depressed for much of his life. His fiction is exuberantly experimental – cerebral, hilarious, sad, slightly bonkers – and his magazine essays and narrative reports are tremendously good. He collected pathologies. One Californian summer day in 2008 he hanged himself in the house he shared with his wife. He was 46. Another strange, tormented man of remarkable gifts is Tiger Woods, the greatest and most self-demanding player ever to strike a golf ball. In The Big Miss (Crown Archetype, £17.99), Hank Haney breaks all confidences as he tells the story of the years he spent as Woods’s coach. The end of their time together coincided with the golfer’s public disgrace and catastrophic loss of form. Woods is revealed to be an unfathomably remote narcissist who yearned to be not just the best player of his generation – he’s certainly that – but a champion for all the ages and a moral example to all men.

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Writers Centre Norwich via Creative Commons)

Alex Preston

Olga Slavnikova’s 2017 (Duckworth, £9.99) is a dystopian novel about scientists speculating for gems in the fictional Riphean Mountains. There are breathtaking, baroque descriptions of the natural world, a love story set against a desolate cityscape, exquisite touches of magic realism and science fiction. It is one of the most bizarre, beautiful books I’ve read in years.

 

 

 

 

 

MILES COLE FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Is it Ruth Davidson's destiny to save the Union?

Ruth Davidson is a Christian, gay, kick-boxing army reservist who made a passionate case for the EU and has transformed the fortunes of the Tories in Scotland.

In the end it made no difference, but during the EU referendum campaign Ruth Davidson achieved something that nobody else did: she made the case for Remain sound thrillingly righteous. In a live, televised BBC debate at Wembley Arena in London, she denounced the “lies” of the Leave campaign, turning to the crowd to declare, twice: “You deserve the truth!” Funny, fervent and pugnacious, Davidson pounced on the bluff assertions of Boris Johnson with gusto, a terrier savaging a shaggy dog. As she departed the podium, flashing a light-bulb grin, she left a question hanging in the air: how far can Ruth Davidson go?

On the face of it, it was a risk for the ­Remain campaign to send the leader of the Scottish Conservatives to Wembley, when most of its persuadable voters lived in England. Yet, according to Andrew Cooper, David Cameron’s pollster and an influential Remain strategist, “Ruth’s name was inked in from the beginning.” After the debate, nobody called this confidence misplaced. Davidson was acclaimed as the star of the night. English observers began to appraise her as a major player in national politics, even as a possible future prime minister.

The EU debate was, for Davidson and for Scots, the least energetically contested of four recent contests, following the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the general election in 2015 and the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2016. In the last one, Davidson led her party to second place, overtaking Labour, and the Conservatives became the main opposition to Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish Nationalists. It was their best result in nearly 60 years and evidence of an astonishing turnaround.

When Davidson was elected leader in 2011, it was like being declared the mayor of a ghost town. Her party’s core voters had long fled, first to Labour and then to the SNP. Margaret Thatcher and successive national Tory leaders had made it almost impossible for Scots to admit to voting Conservative, or even to being friends with anyone who did. It wasn’t just that the Tories were poisonous to the touch; they were on the verge of irrelevance. They held 15 out of the 129 seats at Holyrood. They barely mattered.

They matter now. The stigma of voting Tory has not been entirely erased, but the Conservative brand has been saved, or perhaps subsumed by its Scottish leader’s personal brand. On the ballot paper in May, voters were invited to put a cross next to the slogan “Ruth Davidson for a strong opposition”; party activists knocking on doors introduced themselves as being from “Team Ruth”. A recent poll found that Davidson was the most popular politician in Scotland, surpassing Sturgeon.

Ruth Davidson has been a politician for just five years. If you need reminding of how hard it is, even if you are clever and able, to become a high-level political performer on half a decade’s experience, recall the defining moments of a few Labour MPs of the 2010 generation: Liz Kendall’s flameout, Chuka Umunna’s failure to launch, Owen Smith’s bellyflop. David Cameron’s rise might seem to have been comparably quick, but he had been working in Westminster politics, on and off, for 13 years before he ­became an MP. Three years before being elected leader of the Scottish Tories, Davidson hadn’t even joined a political party.

Davidson may be the most gifted politician in Britain. “She’s a natural, and they are very rare in politics,” Cooper told me. The question for her is whether she will ever convert talent into power.

 

*****

In August, I went to see Davidson speak in Belfast at an event organised by Amnesty International on behalf of the campaign for gay marriage in Northern Ireland. She made a case for equal marriage that was also a case for the institution of marriage. “More than 40 years married and my parents still love each other – and I look at what they have and I want that, too, and I want it to be recognised in the same way,” she said.

She paused to note that the passage was taken from an address that she made at Holyrood during the first reading of Scotland’s equal marriage bill in 2013: “I’ll be honest. I was absolutely bricking it.”

Davidson met her partner, Jen Wilson, in 2014. The couple got engaged this year on holiday in Paris, just after the May election campaign. Wilson, who is 34 and from County Wexford, Ireland, works in the charity sector. In 2015, she appeared with Davidson in a party political broadcast, which showed the couple strolling along Elie Harbour, Fife, and taking selfies with Davidson’s parents. It wasn’t a big deal and yet, at the same time, it felt significant. As Davidson noted in her speech, homosexuality was still a prosecutable offence in Scotland in the year she was born (it was not decriminalised north of the border until 1980).

After the event, I met her for a drink with members of her team at the bar of her hotel. She had returned to Edinburgh from a holiday in Spain in the early hours of that morning, shortly before boarding a plane to Belfast for a full day of engagements. Yet she bristled with energy, giving the illusion of movement even when she was sitting still, her attention distributed between emails on her phone, the conversation at the table and the level of everyone’s drinks. She had enjoyed the event, she said, although she had been hoping for more argument.

In September, we met again for a longer conversation in her small office at Holyrood. In person, she is friendly in a businesslike way, mentally fast (often starting her response before the question is finished) and generous with her answers. As she talks, her eyes fix you in your seat. “Ruth is a brilliant reader of people, including our opponents, and spots weaknesses very early,” her colleague Adam Tomkins told me. “She can see through me. I would hate to play poker with her.”

Before our meeting, I watched First Minister’s Questions, the first after the summer recess. The atmosphere in the chamber at Holyrood is very different from that in the Commons: quieter, less theatrical. The leaders of the main parties are not cheered to their seat. Sturgeon, dressed in black, walked to her desk at the front of the hall, unacknowledged by her colleagues, as a cabinet secretary answered a question on national parks. Davidson entered shortly afterwards, in a violently pink jacket that contrasted vividly with the muted tones preferred by most MSPs.

In the chamber, Davidson often holds her own against the First Minister. The two have contrasting styles: Sturgeon poised and coolly effective, Davidson a study in controlled fury. “Ruth has a real aggression to her,” says the journalist Kenny Farquharson, a columnist for the Times in Scotland. “She’s always looking for the next fight.”

 

*****

Ruth Elizabeth Davidson was born at the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion in Edinburgh in 1978, the second of two daughters to Douglas and Elizabeth Davidson. Her family lived in Selkirk, where her father worked at the wool mill. This was Douglas’s second career: his first had been as a professional footballer, for Partick Thistle and Selkirk FC. The Davidsons moved to Fife when Ruth was a child, after the mill closed. Her parents were Tory voters, without being especially political.

When Ruth Davidson was five years old, she was run over by a truck near her home and nearly killed. The accident shattered her leg, fractured her pelvis and severed her femoral artery, leading to a huge loss of blood. In interviews, she makes quick work of what other politicians might be tempted to craft into a narrative turning point. “My legs are still a bit squint . . . but it has never really stopped me from doing anything,” she told the Scotsman in 2012.

Her family was Presbyterian, in the Church of Scotland, a more austere and morally fiery tradition than Anglicanism. (A Scottish journalist remarked to me, “To us, Anglicanism is Christianity with all the fibre removed.”) Davidson is a practising Christian. Her piety does not extend to abstention from alcohol or profanity – she is a world-class swearer – but it is manifest in her moral muscularity, preacher-like cadences and horror of malingering.

In Fife, Davidson attended Buckhaven High School, a large comprehensive with a working-class intake. She is often referred to as working class, which isn’t quite right. Her mother and father were working-class Glaswegians. Her mother left school at 15, her father at 16. Douglas grew up on an estate in Castlemilk, a district then infamous for its deprivation and crime. He was one of the few Protestants in a solidly Catholic community, during a time of deep divisions.

The Davidsons, however, were upwardly mobile. Douglas had been a manager at the mill in Selkirk and then ran a whisky distillery on the Isle of Arran. The children had the importance of effort and self-improvement drummed into them. Ruth has recalled getting a school report that gave her a 1 for results in science – the best possible mark – and a 2 for effort. “I got a mini-bollocking for that. My mum would have been much happier if it had been the other way round.” Both children attended university (Ruth’s sister is now a doctor).

Davidson did well at school and excelled at sport. She played squash for her county and tennis to a level at which she can teach it. In adulthood, she took up kick-boxing, condemning herself to be forever tagged as a “kick-boxing lesbian” in the British press. Sport has been central in her life, not so much a leisure activity as a method of striving for new goals.

After graduating from Edinburgh University, where she studied English literature and took part in debating competitions, ­Davidson moved to Glasgow and started a career in journalism. In 2002 she joined BBC Scotland, becoming a radio presenter on a drive-time show, reporting on gifted pets one minute and traffic disasters the next. By all accounts, she was excellent: fluent, well prepared, interested in whomever she was talking to. Her producer Pat Stevenson remembers her as “a fantastic interviewer, incisive and forensic, able to spot bullshit a mile off. And she was fun.” Her abiding image of Davidson at the microphone is of a head thrown back in laughter.

Stevenson recalls being vaguely aware that Davidson held right-of-centre views, though these were less of a talking point with her BBC colleagues than her Christianity, or, even more so, her weekends spent deep in a forest, being shouted at while trying to read a map. Davidson served as a signaller in the Territorial Army for three years from 2003 and trained to be an officer. “It was very tough,” says Steve Bargeton, who oversaw the officers’ course. “Most fail or drop out, but Ruth flew through. She had tremendous character.” Davidson won a place at Sandhurst but broke her back during a training exercise, forcing her to end her military career.

She soon set herself a new goal: to be elected to parliament by the time she was 40. In 2009, she left the BBC and joined the Tory party. Davidson has attributed her career change to David Cameron’s call, after the MPs’ expenses scandal, for people who had never been political to get involved, but it is likely she had already decided that politics was the next hill to climb. Either way, she quickly acquired influential sponsors in Edinburgh and London. By the 2010 election, she was head of the private office of Annabel Goldie, the then leader of the Scottish Tories. She stood for an unwinnable Commons seat in Glasgow, twice, both times winning barely 5 per cent of the vote.

Even as the elections to Holyrood came around in May 2011, she was not expected to make it to parliament. She was second on Glasgow’s regional list, which all but ruled her out. A couple of months before the vote, however, the candidate at the top of the list was removed following allegations of past financial problems. The Conservative Party chairman promptly promoted Davidson, who was elected to Holyrood (she won a constituency seat of her own this year in Edinburgh, where she now lives).

In the 2011 election, the SNP, under Alex Salmond, won an unprecedented overall majority in Holyrood. This success transformed the politics of Scotland, and thus that of the UK. Labour’s grip on the votes of working-class Scots was broken. The Conservative Party, already a corpse, failed to twitch. It at once became clear that Salmond had won a mandate for a referendum on independence and that this would be the defining question of Scottish politics until it was resolved.

On the Monday after the election, Annabel Goldie announced that she was resigning. Four days after her election to the Scottish Parliament, Davidson began to consider a run at the leadership of her party. She was encouraged by senior figures, including David Mundell (then a Scotland Office minister, now the Scottish party’s sole MP in Westminster) and David Cameron. In her way stood the Scottish Tories’ deputy leader, Murdo Fraser, an Edinburgh-based lawyer who had been a Conservative activist for a quarter of a century. It was, by common consent, his turn.

Fraser, sensing a threat, committed to an act of excessive radicalism that proved to be his undoing: he proposed that the party ditch the name “Conservative” and break entirely from its southern counterpart. He argued that this measure (Alex Massie, writing in the Spectator, called it the euthanasia option) was the only way to move on from the past and compete with the SNP as a truly Scottish party. He did not recommend a new name; mooted alternatives included the Scottish Reform Party, the Caledonians and Scotland First.

Fraser’s gambit propelled Davidson into the race. She felt that his proposal would unmoor the Scottish Conservatives from their purpose, and also that it was politically naive, as there was little chance that voters would not realise that this was the same party in different clothes. In tactical terms, Fraser had opened up space for a candidate to run on preserving the status quo, rarely an unpopular position among Tories. For his challenger, it was a ripe alignment of conviction and opportunity, a ball bouncing into the perfect position for a killer forehand. Davidson declared on 4 September 2011 and won the final round against Fraser, 55 per cent to 45 per cent. She was 32.

 

****

It is easy to underestimate how much politics, in opposition, is simply about getting noticed. When Davidson became leader, Scottish politics was a (rather one-sided) battle between the SNP and Labour. She needed to fight her way to centre stage and into the calculations of voters – there wasn’t much point repositioning the Tory brand if nobody was watching. As Andrew Cooper put it to me, “You didn’t get to the toxic problem until you dealt with the irrelevant problem.”

Davidson excels at getting noticed. She has – even if she would not appreciate the comparison – a Donald Trump-like understanding of how to get and keep attention. She is at home on social media, something that is true of all the Scottish party leaders, though Davidson’s tweets are the most fearless and funny. She is also an artist of the photo opportunity: here she is in a pink scarf, bestriding the gun of a tank, a Union flag fluttering in the background; playing the bagpipes, or being played by them, eyes popping out of her head; smashing a football into the back of the net.

Such photos do more than get attention. They reinforce the sense of a person unintimidated by the rules of political protocol; indeed, of someone who scorns limitations. There is something almost cartoonish about Davidson’s public profile: the big eyes, the flashing grin, the unstoppable, barrelling walk. In debates, as she winds up to a clinching point, you can, if you half close your eyes, see her swinging her arm through a hundred revolutions before extending it across the stage to smack an opponent. She is one of us, and not like us at all. Flattened by a truck, she gets up and walks away.

Davidson’s willingness to play the fool wouldn’t work if she was not able to convey seriousness at the same time. The leadership race set the template for her political profile as an untraditional traditionalist. Davidson doesn’t look or talk like a typical Tory, but her ideological touchstones are profoundly Conservative. She is a British patriot, a churchgoer, a passionate supporter of the armed forces, an advocate for marriage, a believer in self-reliance. On becoming leader, she set about reviving a type of blue-collar Conservatism not seen since the 1980s. The former Scottish Tory MP Sir Teddy Taylor coined the expression “tenement Tories”: working-class voters with conservative instincts, sceptical of high taxes, patriotic but not nationalist. Davidson, the daughter of tenement Tories, is able to pitch herself as one of them.

To do so has required performing a balancing act with respect to her party in Westminster. She admired Cameron and, politically speaking, was in his debt. Her leadership is staked on the unity of the Scottish and English branches of the party. Yet she has managed, somehow, to position herself against the party’s privileged English elite – the “private-school boys”. Her evident animus against Boris Johnson is both strategic and personal. During the EU campaign, as the polls tightened, she asked Downing Street if it wanted her to go on a “suicide mission” against Johnson, a senior aide to the former prime minister says.

 

****

In Ruth Davidson’s first year as leader, her inexperience showed. She made a prolonged and embarrassing climbdown from a foolhardy promise, made during the leadership campaign, to draw a “line in the sand” against further devolution. Meanwhile, Alex Salmond, a skilled and pitiless debater, successfully patronised her every week at First Minister’s Questions. An impression that she had been promoted prematurely was discreetly given credence by members of her own party (most Scottish Tory MSPs had voted for Fraser).

Davidson was learning not only how to be a leader in public, but how to manage an organisation, a skill for which journalism had not prepared her. A rule change that came into effect when she took over gave her far-reaching powers over the party. As she says, she suddenly found herself responsible for MSPs, staff and activists, but with “no idea how to manage”. She fell back on her training in the Territorial Army. “I had to apply what I learned about leadership in the British army. The toolkit I used was from officer training: how to identify problems, make decisions, bring people with you.”

At Wembley this summer, debating national security, Davidson remarked icily, “I think I’m the only one on this panel who’s ever worn the Queen’s uniform.” Her TA training provides her with a rhetorical trump card and legitimises photo opportunities on tanks, but it does more for her than that. Military metaphors pervade her thinking and fire her imagination. One of her favourite books is Defeat into Victory, an account of the Allied forces campaign in Burma in the Second World War, by William Slim, a British field marshal. “It is the best examination of leadership you’ll ever find,” she told me, and then related, excitedly, an encounter she once had with a Second World War veteran who had witnessed Slim addressing his troops.

After getting heard, Davidson’s most urgent task as leader was to overhaul a demoralised and moribund institution. She focused on candidate recruitment – looking for better signallers. “I wanted to rebuild around the message carriers,” Davidson told me. After their run of bad elections, the Tories had stopped trying to pick winners: “They were asking good, hard-working foot soldiers to stand, just to get a name on the ballot.” Long-standing members would be asked to put their name down and reassured that they wouldn’t have to do anything, and so, by and large, they didn’t.

Davidson put together a new candidates’ board: a former human resources director for Royal Mail, a QC who had been a world champion debater, an expert in corporate leadership. She designed a series of tests based on the officer assessment test that she underwent before Sandhurst (“minus the assault course and press-ups”).

Applicants were asked to sit around a ­table with three others, each with a piece of paper in front of them. When they turned it over, they discovered who they were and what they needed to solve. A new policy was about to affect voters in four neighbouring constituencies, but in different ways: it would be detrimental to those in the first constituency, neutral for those in the second and third and advantageous for those in the fourth. Each candidate represented a different constituency. How would they agree a position?

“It was about making people interact in a way they hadn’t before,” Davidson said. “I made every sitting MSP go through it, including myself.” Her aim was to assemble a team of experts, from business, law, the armed forces and the third sector.

Among her recruits was Adam Tomkins, a professor of public law at Glasgow University, now an MSP and one of Davidson’s closest allies. “By late 2011, it was clear the referendum was coming. I wasn’t involved in party politics but I was a strong believer in the Union and I knew I wanted to do something. I wasn’t a Tory, though. In fact, I had been pretty hostile to them.” He offered his expertise to Labour but came away from meetings with the party’s leaders depressed by their tribalism. Davidson was different: intellectually curious, open-minded, eager to take advice. In 2013, she formally asked him to help the Tories formulate a constitutional policy and he agreed. On New Year’s Day 2014, he joined the Conservatives.

The Scottish independence referendum was the making of Davidson as a national leader, as it was of Nicola Sturgeon, who escaped Salmond’s shadow to become a force in her own right. In TV debates during the campaign, Davidson was the most compelling defender of the Union, capable of winning sympathy for even its most unpopular ingredients. “Ruth emerged as someone who could defend Trident and get applause,” says the journalist David Torrance.

After the referendum in September 2014, she once again had to battle for attention. She needed to convince the media that the Conservatives might yet play a big role at Holyrood – that she was more than an amusing sideshow. The referendum had shown her how decayed Labour’s relationship was with its own voters, and this gave her renewed impetus. She also grasped that, far from enabling Scottish politics to move on from independence, the referendum was still having the opposite effect.

In September 2015 the new Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, announced that Labour MSPs would have a free vote on independence in the event of another referendum. In April 2016, she committed to an increase in the top rate of income tax. Together, the two moves were an attempt to move past the issue of independence. “I want people who voted both Yes and No to see that the Labour Party is the vehicle for progressive change in this country,” she said. Yet Dugdale misjudged the relentlessly centrifugal dynamic of Scottish politics after the referendum. Every policy position – from tax rates to tuition fees – returned to the question of what it signalled about Scotland’s relationship with England.

Davidson understood that if Labour was softening its position on the Union, she need only harden and amplify hers. At this year’s Holyrood election, she presented herself not as an alternative first minister, but as the most forceful voice of opposition to Sturgeon. In the campaign debates, she demonstrated it. By doing so, she was able to convince enough pro-Union Labour voters to defect to achieve second place.

For someone who is still relatively new to politics, Davidson has well-tuned strategic instincts. When I asked Tomkins what she excels at, he said: “Her framework is politics, not policy as such. She is brilliant at tactics, messaging, strategy.”

Davidson seems to have developed a serious interest in politics only as an adult, and then only because she thought that it presented a worthy challenge for her abilities (by contrast, most of the leading Scottish Nationalists joined the SNP before they were 18). A little like David Cameron, she just thought that she would be good at it. When I asked her to name her political heroes, or politicians whom she particularly admired, she struggled to come up with any from real life, naming Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, Shakespeare’s Henry V and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. She wasn’t being coy – it’s just that, like most people, she has never looked to politics for role models. With prompting, she eventually named Peter Mandelson, for his part in making the Labour Party electable again, and William Hague, for his work on women’s rights while foreign secretary.

This lack of political nerdery is part of what makes her able to connect so directly with voters, but it is also a limitation. A consistent criticism of Davidson, even among those who admire her, is that she is not interested in policy, or at least that she does not have a set of distinctive policy ideas. This isn’t quite fair – she has published a paper on education and successfully focused attention on the attainment gap between poor and middle-class students. But she has not yet committed to a detailed alternative (a school vouchers policy was raised and then quietly dropped). Other than “maintain the Union”, it is difficult to know what a Davidson-led government would do.

The word everyone uses about her is “authentic”; like Sturgeon, she projects comfort in her own skin. But in a sense Davidson is a lucky politician, as well as a precociously accomplished one. It is much easier to be yourself in politics when what you believe matches so neatly with what you need to do to win. Her decision to present herself in the Holyrood elections as an effective opponent, rather than an alternative first minister, was tactically smart, but it raised a larger question. As one observer put it to me, “We know what she’s against. But what is Ruth Davidson for?”

 

*****

On 12 July, the day after it became clear that Theresa May would be the new Conservative leader, Davidson spoke at a Press Gallery lunch in Westminster and delivered what was, in essence, a stand-up comedy set. Even by her standards, it was indiscreet. On the difference between the Tories’ truncated leadership contest and Labour’s lengthy deliberation, she remarked: “Labour’s still fumbling with its flies while the Tories are enjoying a post-coital cigarette after withdrawing our massive Johnson.”

It is difficult to say it without sounding like a stick in the mud, but to me this routine felt misjudged. Political leaders can be funny but not that funny – not without compromising our sense of their stability. Nor was it wise to be so rude. Johnson is in the same party as she is, after all, and may yet become leader (nobody, possibly least of all Davidson, is sure what she would have done had Johnson succeeded Cameron). Like many funny people, Davidson metabolises anger into humour and I suspect that, after Brexit, her anger was surging.

It wasn’t just that she thought the decision was profoundly wrong, or that she was contemptuous of Leave’s tactics. It was also that she was being forced to rethink her future. If Remain had won, the chance of another independence referendum may well have receded, allowing Scottish politics to normalise. The SNP would have found it harder to present itself as being simultaneously in office and opposition. Davidson could have embarked on the last stage of the Scottish Tory recovery: making it an alternative government. She might even have considered the option of taking a Westminster seat – after which, who knows?

The vote in favour of Brexit knocked all of this on the head. It put independence firmly back on the agenda. Instead of either disappearing or becoming imminent, the prospect of a second referendum will squat in the middle distance of Scottish politics for years to come. In a sense, this is convenient for Davidson, because she will remain the strongest voice on one side of the only real issue in town. She can make further inroads into the heartlands of a Labour Party that, at a UK-wide level, is strangling itself to death, while picking up SNP voters who lose patience with Sturgeon when she blames every problem with the National Health Service or schools on London.

Theresa May is not nearly so good a bogeyman for Sturgeon as Cameron was. Davidson gets on well with her despite some stylistic differences. Both are observant Christians and care about their duties to the Tory flock. When May came to Scotland to meet Sturgeon in the week after she became Prime Minister, she also attended a meeting of local Conservative members, which Davidson greatly appreciated (Cameron wouldn’t have done such a thing). Davidson has not, as May has, marinated for years in local Tory association meetings but she takes her responsibility to the membership seriously, in the manner of a general concerned with the troops’ morale.

Yet a referendum that is always two years away is one that she can never win or lose. It is hard for her to come up with distinctive ideas when there is little point devoting effort to envisioning a policy agenda that will be distorted through the prism of independence. Given the odds that she overcame to take her party to where it is now, nobody should dismiss the chance that she might one day become first minister. But Scottish politics is defined by long periods of single-party hegemony and the SNP under Sturgeon may well have just started its turn.

Then there is the option of running for a (Scottish) seat in Westminster. Davidson says that she has no interest in swapping Edinburgh for London, either politically or personally, and I believe her. Yet there may come a point at which she is forced to confront the possibility that this is the only way to escape a career in permanent opposition. She might also come to see it as the best way to defend the Union. Sturgeon has suggested that there is no longer any such thing as British politics. What a rebuke it could be to that idea to have one of Scotland’s most popular politicians in the cabinet at Westminster, or, indeed, in 10 Downing Street (a possibility hardly less plausible than Davidson’s elevation to first minister). On the other hand, Davidson may leave politics altogether. She was strikingly keen to emphasise, in our interview, that at some point she will seek an entirely new challenge.

We like to think that the best politicians will somehow find their way to power – that talent will rise to its appropriate level. But Davidson has only two paths to high office open to her: becoming first minister, or quitting Edinburgh for Westminster. Both are exceedingly steep. If she cannot or will not take either, in decades to come she may be remembered as we now recall her performance at Wembley: a firework show, lighting up the landscape without changing it.

Ian Leslie’s “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” is published by Quercus. Twitter: @mrianleslie

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories